Marsden calls the government's zero-tolerance policy "courageous" and says the "food safety initiative for the school program has been very successful overall." But he says the Beef Packers case "highlights a potential flaw in the system that should be addressed."
The government could have rejected all the lots. It did not. "The company had the option to include all of the school lunch product in the recall regardless of results of the test, and in my opinion, that's what should have been done," says Marsden, who also is the senior science adviser for the North American Meat Processors Association. "It's just poor decision-making."
Beef Packers supports the government's decision to release the beef for schools but is reluctant to rely on the tests as proof that the beef was salmonella-free.
"Well, I can only say, thank God there were no outbreaks at schools related to any of these products. And that's not saying much," says Mark Klein, a spokesman for Cargill, which owns Beef Packers.
Government officials with the Agricultural Marketing Service, the arm of the USDA that runs the school lunch program, stand behind their decision. In a written statement to USA TODAY, AMS Administrator Rayne Pegg said no meat is sent to schools until "tests confirm the product was not contaminated."
Even so, in response to the USA TODAY investigation, Pegg said the USDA "plans to initiate an independent review" of its "testing procedures and process control requirements" next year.
Since finishing these orders, Beef Packers has bid on no more contracts for the National School Lunch Program, the company and the USDA say. It had ranked among the top seven ground beef producers for schools from 2001 through 2009.
The problems this summer at Beef Packers should not have surprised the USDA or AMS. Beef Packers, bought by Cargill in 2006, has a checkered relationship with the program that provides food for 31 million schoolchildren across the nation. In particular, the company has been haunted by its ground beef testing positive for salmonella.
Children are particularly vulnerable to food-borne illnesses. USA TODAY identified hundreds of outbreaks at schools caused by pathogens from 1998 to 2007, the last year for which data were available. The outbreaks sickened at least 23,000 kids.
Although school districts buy most of the products served to kids at schools — often through food service management companies — the U.S. government provides much of the meat through its commodities program. USA TODAY analyzed federal data on more than 360,000 orders placed by the government for beef, poultry and other products sent to schools.
The newspaper also examined results from more than 146,000 tests for bacteria including salmonella and E. coli, and reports of violations of government standards, complaints against producers by schools and suspensions of companies by the AMS.
Among providers of ground beef, Beef Packers stood out.
Government documents show the company failed to meet program requirements more than 40 times and had more than 1 million pounds of its ground beef rejected because of salmonella contamination during the 2003-04 school year.
In the following years, the company was suspended from the school lunch program three times — twice in 2007 and once in 2008. Two of those suspensions came after the company repeatedly failed to produce ground beef that was free of salmonella, USA TODAY found.